September 5, 2018

“Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.”–Malcom Gladwell

In October 2010, Malcolm Gladwell published a piece in the New Yorker called “Small Change: why the revolution will not be tweeted.” In it, he tells stories from the Civil Rights movement–specifically the sit-ins of the South and the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project–to illustrate how only a certain kind of activism (what he calls “high-risk activism”) can cause real change. After three volunteers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee–Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman–were kidnapped and killed for their roles in helping register Black voters in Mississippi, many workers left the Project. Who stayed? People with the strongest ties to other participants or people most impacted by the civil-rights movement: “All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts—the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi.”

Then comes the nut graph: social media activism (a distinction that’s always reminded me of how we use qualifiers to lessen their nouns’ seriousness, such as “statutory” or “date”) cannot attack deeply rooted problems because it is “built around weak ties.” A couple strange anecdotes are meant to provide examples of weak-tie activism: a woman crowdsourcing for bone marrow, a Wall Street banker getting his phone back from a Black teenage girl who, after retrieving it from a cab, told him basically “finders, keepers.” Gladwell’s thesis is that social media activism will never shift the status quo because it is based on mere (the connotation is “lazy”) participation and not committed motivation.

All of this is to say, I wasn’t really surprised when Gladwell tweeted yesterday that he thinks Steve Bannon (a man responsible for a “news” website that for years promoted Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, anti-immigrant nationalism, anti-feminism and homophobia) should be allowed to speak at the New Yorker festival next month after he was disinvited due to outcry on social media. Perhaps Gladwell is having a hard time recognizing the activism he disparaged eight years ago as being the vehicle for real social change.

2018 is not 2010; we know now that social media activism–and just social media presence in general–can have a serious impact on the user’s life. We can lose jobs, incite violence, win and lose elections based on what we post and read online. While it doesn’t take much physical effort to tweet our political beliefs and calls for action, we still have to adhere to these beliefs in “the real world” (as if there’s any distinction). It’s proven to be a “high-risk” activity to stand by our principles both online and off.